Three Filmmakers Fighting for Animals

Three Filmmakers Fighting for Animals

“The best work is always done when there is passion.”

Liz Marshall. All photopgraphs for this story by Jo-Anne McArthur/The Unbound Project except where indicated

At one point or another, every animal activist has described their motivation as speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves. Filmmakers Allison Argo, Shannon Keith, and Liz Marshall are no different. Artists as much as activists, they are driven professionals, determined to use their voices to speak for the animals exploited and abused in a human world.

“I am inspired by causes that need representation,” says animal rights lawyer turned director and producer Shannon Keith. After years spent helping activist clients fight government harassment, Keith discovered that she too was known to the authorities. “I found out that I had been followed for years, my trash had been taken and I was on a terrorist watch list,” she says. But instead of giving in to the intimidation, “this only fueled the fire,” she says, the threat backfiring and increasing her desire to tell the stories of those fighting animal exploitation through activism. She founded the non-profit group ARME (Animal rescue media education), which, as well as taking on direct animal care & rescue work, addresses animal abuse and exploitation through producing documentaries. “The degree to which animals are exploited, abused and neglected is unfathomable and it continues because most people don’t know it exists,” Keith says of her motivation. “Documentary exposés are a great way to get information out so that individuals can take action.”

Talking with Argo, Keith, and Marshall, it’s clear that telling stories for animals comes with its own set of challenges, but that the passion each woman feels for the cause has allowed them to overcome the obstacles that have arisen in their careers. Though “career” was hardly how Allison Argo viewed filmmaking when she made her first documentary. “I knew nothing about making films,” she says. But then Argo encountered a silverback gorilla named Ivan on display as an attraction in a low-end shopping mall in Washington State. Seeing Ivan kept in isolation in these conditions, Argo resolved to tell his story, teaching herself the craft to be able to do so. “It took me three years to do it. After the film aired, the shopping mall was picketed and Ivan was sent to live with other gorillas. I’ve made films focused on animal welfare ever since.” Now a producer, director, writer and editor, she founded Argo Films to continue making documentaries that help animals.

I look for those who are struggling – for survival or freedom or simply for dignity and respect.

– Allison Argo

“I believe that most humans are inherently compassionate,” Argo says. “But if they’re unaware of the suffering of others, how can they make compassionate choices?” Educating audiences about the suffering of animals is evidently a passion for all three filmmakers, but the task itself takes skill. “To visually witness the truth head-on means showing violence and suffering, yet people turn away or shut down when confronted with these uncensored realities,” says Liz Marshall, director and co-producer of The Ghosts in Our Machine. “How do we convey the gravity without traumatizing the audience?”

Allison Argo

Marshall was already an established filmmaker when she decided to make a film that focused on animals. Having already made documentaries focusing on other social issues, one of her goals in making a film that focused on animal issues was to draw in members of other social movements.

We wanted to make a film that could be a bridge.

– Liz Marshall

Marshall focused on the power of human narrative to help audiences connect with animals, but also strove to give animals agency by essentially letting them speak for themselves in her film. “The result in Ghosts is that there are some sentimental sequences and long observational sequences without talking.”

All three women highlighted connecting viewers to animal stories as one of the primary challenges they face as filmmakers fighting for animals. “Getting people to care about animal issues can be challenging,” says Keith.

And it’s not just the audience that’s hard to convince. “The industry has tended to trivialize the significance and importance of animal-focused films,” says Argo. “I have noticed an unfortunate bias in the film industry towards human-focused stories.”

But that’s changing. Argo, Keith, and Marshall all mentioned a shift in recent years, with both producers and filmgoers more open to viewing animal stories. And indeed, all three women have produced award-winning animal-focused documentaries that have generated considerable attention. Not only are today’s audiences more willing to watch films about animals, the breadth of topics available to the animal movement’s storytellers has been significantly expanded by the progress of recent years. As the movement to protect animals moves forward, so too does the art that reflects it.

Marshall’s next project, supported by Canada’s documentary Channel, is a feature length documentary called Meat the Future, a film that explores the movement to transform conventional animal agriculture with the advent of “cultured” “clean” meat: real meat produced without animal slaughter. Marshall describes the film as upbeat and solutions-focused––hardly terms that have been traditionally associated with stories at the heart of the animal rights movement. Likewise, Argo’s newest project is also a story that offers a non-traditional narrative within the movement. The Last Pig is a documentary about pig farmer Bob Comis, who, after contemplating his life as a farmer raising animals he cared for but ultimately killed, decided to transform his farm into a sanctuary. “The film invites the audience to question their own ethics and connect the dots between what they eat and the sentient creatures on factories & farms,” says Argo. Keith’s latest work, Sanctuary, tells the story of the harrowing world of non-human primates kept in captivity and the incredible stories of the people who work tirelessly to free these animals and give them a chance at a life that is their own. More than two decades ago, Argo started her filmmaking career portraying Ivan’s plight in an effort to mobilize her community and offer him sanctuary; today, Keith has been able to base her own film project on just a handful of the countless activists now working to liberate and care for animals like Ivan. The momentum is tangible.

The best work is always done when there is passion.

– Shannon Keith

These women are telling stories that need to be heard with voices that for too long went underrepresented. For years, the film industry lacked diversity and inevitably produced narratives from an overly homogenous perspective, but trailblazers like Argo, Keith, and Marshall are changing that. Keith’s experience as an attorney taught her to let her talent and drive do the talking. “There was a definitely a men’s club that tried to keep women out, degrade us, make fun of us, and otherwise do their best to make my job difficult, but it never worked. The best attorney typically won out in the end,” she says. “Winning awards early on… helped to establish me as an equal player,” says Argo, and she hasn’t stopped since. And while there is still work to do, the industry has quickly realized the power of diversity: “There is a big campaign now, all about the importance of the female gaze, and about gender parity when it comes to funding,” says Marshall.

The range of subjects available to animal-focused filmmakers in today’s world, and the angles with which they are choosing to portray these stories, shows a movement in full swing that needs artists more than ever. The success of documentaries like Blackfish and Cowspiracy have thrown issues affecting animals onto the mainstream agenda in unprecedented way. While documentary filmmakers were once constrained to using festivals and campaign events as platforms for their projects, they are now able to use the power of animal narratives to appeal directly to anyone with a Netflix account. Perhaps the greatest tool that animal activists have today is not a megaphone, but a camera lens. Argo, Keith, and Marshall are all turning theirs on the animals who need our help and on the activists fighting for them. Their efforts are shining lights into the corners of animal-use industries that, for so many years, have relied on darkness.

Karyn Boswell

Karyn Boswell

On a Mission of Kindness and Compassion Towards All Animals

Karyn and Penny

Karyn Boswell with Penny and Teddy.

Karyn Boswell didn’t set out to become a leading voice on horse protection. She didn’t even set out to start a horse sanctuary, Penny Lane Farm Sanctuary. Instead, the former federal government analyst became a mother and moved to the country—coincidentally, just down the road from a feedlot, where horses no longer of use in human industries were routinely held between auction and slaughter.

A lifelong vegetarian (she’s now vegan) and one-time veterinary clinic employee, Karyn hadn’t even known that horses were killed for meat, let alone that approximately 80,000 horses endure a horrifying slaughter each year in Canada. The first horse she rescued and the namesake for her sanctuary, Penny Lane, was found with an auction number glued to her hip. Then, Penny didn’t have a name, and her past was unknown—irrelevant to her owner, who bought her at auction only to turn a profit by selling her for meat.

We met Karyn, her family and her team of dedicated volunteers on a hot summer’s day at Penny Lane, just east of Canada’s capital, Ottawa. Karyn introduced us to each resident, sharing with us their harrowing stories, and how they’ve adjusted to sanctuary life. It was brilliant to photograph her interacting with Penny and Teddy in the lower paddock. Her look of unbridled (pun!) happiness while spending time with her equine friends was a joy to photograph.

Nobody rides on the horses at Karyn’s sanctuary. She says:

It’s important to me that nobody rides any of the horses at Penny Lane because they are not here to serve a purpose or to entertain—they are simply allowed to live their own lives, free to just be. All of the horses have had tough pasts, full of instability and uncertainty. Cowboy, for instance, was severely tortured and abused. He was in vet care for months and was then put up for adoption by the Windsor Humane Society. Sadly, no one wanted him because he could not be ridden—he was regarded as “useless”. He is not a toy that can be tossed aside when no longer useful. I want him to know he never has to entertain anyone. He can live in peace at the sanctuary, protected for life. I think it’s important to show people that you can establish an amazing relationship with a horse built on trust without riding them.

It’s not just 12 horses who are lucky enough to call Penny Lane home. Two goats rescued by the Montreal SPCA from a situation of severe neglect and two turkeys once destined to be Thanksgiving dinner now form their own unlikely flock of four. The turkeys, Michelle and Belle, are curious, intelligent, and alert. Though shy at first, it didn’t take them long to warm up to their human companions—or become bonded to each other. Now, they serve as ambassadors for sanctuary visitors, gently reminding people that turkeys are individuals, not a fleeting meal.

Karyn Boswell with her family and some of the staff and volunteers at Penny Lane Sanctuary.

Karyn Boswell with her family and some of the staff and volunteers at Penny Lane Sanctuary.

After meeting Karyn, we got the sense that she was a supporter of many sanctuaries, animal rescue efforts and outreach. When asked about this, she replied:

A large part of my mission with Penny Lane Farm Sanctuary is to promote kindness and compassion towards all animals in order to raise awareness. I believe it is very important to support other organizations and efforts involved in animal rights that are working hard  to make a difference – whether it be in the form of a sanctuary or vegan-based business.  Being involved so deeply with the horses has truly opened my eyes to just how badly society mistreats and misunderstands them. They are still classified as “livestock”, which subjects them to the same horrific abuses that farm animals endure. I have made a point of digging into specific industries which rely on horses for pure monetary gain (discarding them like trash when no longer profitable). Some examples include the racing industry, slaughter industry (and live export of draft horses to Japan for meat consumption), caleche industry, and PMU farms out West. I support the tireless efforts of organizations such as the Canadian Horse Defense Coalition and the Anti-Caleche Defense Coalition, that work hard to bring these issues to light.

Karyn and her team open their doors to visitors a few times a year. Details are on their website:

Thank you Karyn from everyone at Unbound for your tireless and inspiring work on behalf of animals.

5 Lawyers

5 Lawyers

“We Do It Because We Don’t Have a Choice”: 5 Canadian Lawyers Who Are Changing the World For Animals

L-R: Camille Labchuk, Sophie Gaillard, Anna Pippus, Lesli Bisgould, Alanna Devine.

L-R: Camille Labchuk, Sophie Gaillard, Anna Pippus, Lesli Bisgould, Alanna Devine. All photopgraphs for this story by Jo-Anne McArthur / The Unbound Project

In recent weeks there has been a spotlight on Montreal. Of course, this world-class city is known internationally for its history, culture, and jazz, but lately Montreal has been getting media attention for another reason, the City’s attempt to ban pit bulls through breed specific legislation (BSL). Alanna Devine and Sophie Gaillard are lawyers who work at the Montreal SPCA, Canada’s oldest animal protection agency, and they have been at the forefront of the fight against this legislation.

The current fight over BSL in Quebec is just one of many recent cases where Canadian lawyers have used their expertise to try and make a difference for animals, and this summer we had the opportunity to bring Devine and Gaillard together with three other lawyers who have also made headlines for their commitment to standing up for animals in Canada: Camille Labchuk, Anna Pippus, and Lesli Bisgould. These five women have been highly visible and influential in the field of Canadian animal law in recent years. Bisgould, who opened Canada’s first practice in animal rights law, has now moved from practicing animal rights law to teaching it. Pippus and Labchuk have spent much of their professional lives building Animal Justice, Canada’s only national animal law organization (Labchuk is currently serving as Executive Director of this organization) and, in this capacity, have contributed their expertise to a wide range of cases involving animals. We spent the day with these 5 women to talk about the field of animal law, how they have seen animal protection and animal advocacy evolve in recent years, and their advice for those wanting to work in this area in Canada.

While all five of these lawyers have different backgrounds and areas of expertise, there is much common ground between them. “We are all focused on achieving animal liberation through the law,” Pippus pointed out, “and I think that is what sets us apart.” Labchuk agrees, “for me, law school and being a lawyer is just a tool to accomplish animal liberation. It is not an end or a means in and of itself.” The idea that the law can be an important tool on this front is, itself, groundbreaking and new. Bisgould remembers how things used to be, how the dominant way of thinking about animals and the law used to be that the law was “a tool that lawyers used to empower advocates to fight for things.” Now, however, “lawyers themselves want to be advocates. And that itself is a change.”

Devine, Gaillard, Labchuk, Pippus, and Bisgould all agreed that things are changing rapidly in the context of animal law in Canada, and that in recent years there has been a groundswell of interest in using the legal system to make the world a better place for animals. Another important change that these women see is that there seems now to be more of an acceptance that lawyers can care deeply about the cases they work on. Gaillard remembers being told in law school that “you can’t be overly passionate about whatever case you are working on, that you have to remain cold and objective and you can’t be emotionally invested in the case that you are working on because you won’t do a good job. This idea that you can only be a good lawyer if you are emotionally removed–I always thought that was bullshit!”

While all five of these women strive to use the law as a way to fight for animal liberation, they also recognize that legal avenues can sometimes be “imperfect” in this respect. As Gaillard points out, “when we choose law as our tool we are forced sometimes to bend to what we can use.” She remembers a friend and mentor cautioning her against going to law school if she really cared about making a difference for animals. “You can’t be an animal lawyer and be true to your philosophical beliefs in your practice,” she recalls her friend saying. Gaillard was undeterred and respectfully disagrees with this point. She understands that sometimes legal strategies take a long time to unfold and that sometimes it is necessary to move incrementally and that this might involve compromise:

there may be little bits that you can do that are true to your principles, but I think a lot of our work requires a little bit of sidestepping and tackling what may seem like minor issues in the grand scheme of things, but these ultimately help develop case law in way that advances the interests of animals

In this field things can move slowly, and what seems like progressive steps forward are often thwarted by several roadblocks. While this can seem daunting and discouraging, it is important to celebrate the milestones as well as the smaller victories along the way.  As Devine points out,

anything that we do that reduces suffering in some way, shape, or form should be considered a victory, so whether it be one animal and focusing on that one animal, or one person who has decided that they are going to change their way of life because they actually understand that they don’t need to eat animals or wear animals, and that they can live a happy, healthy, joyful life without the causing suffering of others is a victory.

For Pippus it is also very important that people “see that the movement is gaining momentum and that we are having victories, that we are changing things” because this is an important part of changing the status quo.

All five of these lawyers are vegan, and want to push the conversation about the treatment of animals in Canada to include all animals. It can be frustrating to see people who care deeply about companion animals—people who love the dogs and cats they share their lives with—turn a blind eye when it comes to the suffering of other animals. This is acutely felt with the rise of so-called “happy meat” and things like “cage free eggs.” However, as Pippus points out,

if somebody is saying ‘I care about how animals are treated and therefore hens should be out of cages,’ we just now need to take that compassion and care and say, ‘ok, well, if that is how you feel, the only solution is animal rights and veganism.’

This is echoed by Devine who believes that

if you can get people to acknowledge that first step with respect to farm animals, to acknowledge that they care how these animals are treated, then eventually they are going to understand that it is not humane to do any of the things that we do to farm animals.

Even when things get tough, and the victories seem few and far between, Devine, Gaillard, Labchuk, Pippus, and Bisgould continue to be motivated to fight for animals through legal channels. Gaillard stresses that they are not in it for the victories but, instead points out that, “we do it because we don’t have a choice. It is like we are going to die trying. We can’t not just sit by and watch cruelty to animals happen without trying to do something.”

For Devine, the most important thing that lawyers can do to change the status quo for animals is to normalize the conversations taking place about animals in our society.

One of the really important things we should be doing, and I think we are doing, is encouraging the teaching of animal law in law schools, speaking with future lawyers and judges and politicians, and ensuring that their personal beliefs are aligned with an understanding of animal sentience and animal rights, and I think this is hugely important.

This, she feels, will move concern for animals in legal realms from the margins to the mainstream. “I mean, if you are in front of a judge who is vegan, someone who understands that animals do not need to suffer for the various purposes we make them suffer for that are completely unnecessary, and I think that is fundamentally important.”

The field of animal law is growing exponentially in Canada—as Bisgould puts it, “animal law has gone from an idea to a fact.” This is echoed by Labchuk who notes that when she first started “there were a handful of animal law classes” and that many people were dismissive of her goals to be an animal rights lawyer. She points now to the increasing number of academic publications on animal law in Canada as well as the number of high profile cases involving animals that regularly make headlines in mainstream media—“these issues are in the news every single day.” This rising awareness of animal law is starting to find its way in to Canadian law schools as well. “That is what excites me about the future,” Labchuk says, “that in 20 years now we are going to be in that situation where everyone who has gone law school will have had exposure to an animal law class.”

Related to this, all five of these women also see mentoring as an important part of their professional lives, and all regularly talk with students who are interested in this career path. Further, all agree that there seems to be a noticeable spike in the number of young people—in particular, young women—who want to go in to animal law in Canada. Bisgould advises students to have an open mind and to gain a wide range of experience. “Animal rights work can be bleak,” she stresses, “and it can be useful to work on other sorts of cases too. If you don’t depend on animal work for your living, you don’t have to compromise and take the wrong cases just to pay the bills. And you can afford to give low fee or pro bono service to advocates who need it.”

While the interest in the field of animal law has really exploded in Canada in recent years, the number of jobs openings in this field has not kept pace with the rising interest. “The jobs in animal law are few and far between,” Labchuk laments, but that doesn’t mean that people who want to get in to this field should be discouraged.

Whether you work in it full time or not, you can make a huge contribution to the field by working in a bigger firm, by working at another organization, and doing animal law when you can–whether it is pro bono files, volunteering on the board of an organization–there are a lot of ways to contribute to the field.

This sentiment is echoed by Devine who points out that “there is no one path–don’t be afraid to forge your own path. There are many people doing interesting things in animal law that don’t do it full time.” Gaillard agrees, noting that

even if you don’t manage to get a position in the end that is 100% animal law or working for an animal rights or animal protection organization, there is still a lot that can be done in traditional lawyer jobs, especially in government or in the criminal justice system. We need politicians and judges and lawyers that are open-minded in terms of animal issues, and having lawyers at the government level that care about animals would make a huge difference.

While Canada lags behind the United States in terms of the development of animal law, there was general consensus that this might, in fact, be a good thing, that those working in animal law in Canada now might have a bit more freedom to craft and shape things in ways that make sense for our current social, cultural, and political climate. As Devine points out, “our laws are different and I think that people’s perspectives have evolved, and maybe it is not a bad thing that we are only starting now to think of creative ways to challenge the status quo in Canada.” Labchuk agrees, noting that “we are at the very beginning of the movement, and there is so much room to shape it in the right direction at this point.”

Bisgould, who is considered by many to be one of the foundational figures in animal law in Canada (and certainly someone that Labchuk, Pippus, Devine, and Gaillard all point to as having a huge influence on their development in the field), is even willing to seek another phrase to replace “animal law” because she sees it as falling short of being able to “sufficiently convey the idea that the goal of the discipline is to erode animals’ property status and establish actual legal rights for them. Animal law is so broad a term that it could apply to all sorts of conflicts involving animals, where their interests don’t necessarily matter.” Pippus agrees that there is a distinction between merely practicing law that involves animals, and expanding the law to include “animals’ interests in court in a whole slew of ways.” As she stresses, “animals should be in every area of law because animals affect every area of our life.”

Perhaps one of the most promising things about the future of animal law in Canada is that there is a lot of co-operation and coalition-building among various organizations dedicated to animal protection in Canada. “There is a lot of behind the scenes co-operation,” says Devine, “we are connected enough that even though we may take different approaches to different issues, we are still going to communicate because everyone still has the goal of reducing suffering.”

Labchuk, for example, speaks with pride about the way a number of different groups came together in support of Bill C-246, a recent private members bill put forth by Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith which aimed to update and modernize Canada’s animal protection legislation. Even though this Bill was ultimately defeated, the way groups who might not normally work together did so in this instance is highly encouraging as are the conversations across the country that this proposed Bill sparked.

Lesli Bisgould, Camille Labchuk, Alanna Define, Sophie Gaillard, Anna Pippus.

Lesli Bisgould, Camille Labchuk, Alanna Define, Sophie Gaillard, Anna Pippus.

Devine, Gaillard, Bisgould, Labchuk, and Pippus all agree that they have been fortunate to not experience overt discrimination because of their gender in their professional lives. Labchuk credits this to the fact that

in Canada the animal rights scene is not only dominated by women at all levels, but especially in the leadership positions. The heads of most of the animal organizations in Canada are women. Whereas in the States, it is almost all men. I don’t really have any explanations as to why that is in Canada, but, as a consequence, I’ve personally never thought about gender as a limiting factor in moving forward in this field because I’ve never seen it to be. And my role models in the field have all been women.

Pippus agrees, noting that when you are vegan and “involved in animal rights, you are already a bit of an ‘outside the box’ thinker and don’t internalize other people’s ideas. I’m too convinced that animal liberation is right to take any sort of scoffing at it seriously.”

One thing that does come up, however, is the idea that they might be more concerned about animals because they are women. Gaillard points out that in her line of work “being compassionate and concerned for animals is often equated with being overly emotional and sensitive, and I find that a form of sexism.” For Pippus, the idea that being emotional is something to be ashamed of is infuriating—“you are dismissing me because I’m emotional? Damn it! I am emotional. I’m angry and I’m irritable about animal abuse, because who wouldn’t be?”

These kinds of conversations represent new horizons in the ways in which animals are being talked about and considered in legal circles. As Pippus points out, “cultural attention to animal issues is taking off like never before.” In Canada, this is in large part thanks to the ground-breaking efforts of people like Devine, Gaillard, Bisgould, Labchuk, and Pippus who will not back down in their collective fight for animal liberation.